Class war never went away
David Douglass reports on the destruction and restoration of the highly symbolic Wardley miners' banner
Weekly Worker 868 Thursday June 02 2011
I am immensely proud to invite Weekly Worker readers to the relaunch of this most controversial and radical banner. It has been my obsession since I first discovered it while a National Union of Mineworkers student at Ruskin College in 1971. This was the lodge banner which would have been familiar to my father and grandfather, though it had long gone by the time I started work and joined the Follonsby lodge in 1964.
While interviewing the ‘aud lads’ of Wardley colliery for my work on the Durham miners, I came across a very battered black-and-white photo of the banner on the wall of the old miners’ hut. Rediscovering the history of this lodge, its leadership and the story of the banner became something of a magical mystery tour, which, off and on, has lasted 40 years.
There is at least one other ‘red’ Durham miners banner: the famous (‘Little Moscow’) Chopwell banner of 1924, which carries an image of both Marx and Lenin and was unveiled by the legendary Jim Larkin. At least two other banners carried the portraits of Marx, but this Follonsby banner is probably the most revolutionary since the days of the Chartists, in my view. Here is the only British union banner to carry the portrait of James Connolly, a man who launched an armed socialist insurrection in the middle of an imperialist world war and, lest there be any mistake as to why he is there, he wears the uniform of the Irish Citizens Army, Europe’s first ‘red army’. The slogan urges us to take up the revolutionary struggle - to death if needs be.
The banner has a long, fascinating and contentious history. It was first commissioned in 1928 and unveiled by the bogey man of the British state, Arthur Cook, president of the Miners Federation during the most bitter struggle of the 1926 General Strike and great miners’ lock-out. Cook himself appeared on the first version of the banner, but it was a short-lived incarnation, for it was lost in a mysterious fire 10 years later. A fire which destroyed the Miners Welfare Hall, the miners comprehensive library, taking Geordie Harvey’s priceless collection of first-edition books - and very nearly his life and that of his wife - in the process.
The banner was immediately recommissioned, this time to even more exacting standards and quality. The central portrait of Lenin was painted in Moscow (by “a famous Russian artist”), sent to Britain, copied and then returned, while that of Connolly was by one of his ICA comrades, Thomas Jain, who escaped the Dublin post office in the final moments before its surrender in 1916.
It should be noted that during this whole period, beginning around 1910, through to the 30s, the workers’ movement was engaged in a turmoil of debate - philosophical, ideological, tactical and organisational. Some of this has been covered in the Weekly Worker’s series on the formative struggles of the CPGB. Goals themselves were fluid; strategies and tactics were fiercely contested and argued for in the mass, organised ranks of labour - and nowhere more so than in the highly politicised coal communities. Who appeared on a lodge banner, their character and ideology were often bitterly contested - the debates went beyond the mass meetings of the lodge hall, beyond the specially convened community debates in chapel and bar, and resounded through every public assembly available. The banner completion was itself part of a whole process of debate related to direct experience, leadership and expectations.
The recreated banner of 1938 was unveiled by Arthur Horner, communist leader of the south Wales miners and destined to become the national president of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain. Arthur had left the Welsh valleys as a 16-year-old and himself joined Connolly’s ICA, acting as a ‘powder monkey’ during the rebellion. Truth is, the paths of all the heroes depicted on the banner crossed in one form or another.
The history of the banner really begins with the foundation of the Industrial Workers of the World in Chicago in 1905, and with George Harvey, the banner’s architect and political inspiration of the lodge. He is depicted on the bottom right. While Connolly was a founding member of the IWW and one of its first national organisers, Harvey was a founder member of the Industrial Union of Britain and the first person to publish pamphlets of industrial unionism as a tactic and philosophy. The Socialist, which George wrote for and edited for a time, was printed on Connolly’s Irish Republican Socialist Press. George was caught up in the Socialist Labour Party’s soul-searching following the Russian Revolution, and became one of the first members of the CPGB.
The centrality of Lenin in the process is symbolised by his centrality on the banner. Keir Hardie was, of course, the ‘father of the British Labour Party’ - a lad who started his working life down the mine at 10 years old and witnessed the incredible slaughter and hardship of pit life in those early years. He was the first independent Labour MP and founder of the Independent Labour Party. A passionate socialist pacifist, it is said he died of a broken heart following the mighty blow dealt to international socialist aspirations by World War I.
If the appearance of this banner caused a stir in 1938, what happened next split the village for decades, as the mine went into rundown and union membership fell, and the village population moved on to nearby collieries. The new lodge leadership painted over the contentious banner, inserting images of the moderate opposition in place of the original revolutionaries. When next the fortunes of the mine revived and the revisionist banner was paraded once more, uproar ensued at its first sighting - many resolved never to carry it again, although few stuck to that resolve over the passing years.
As time went on, the fire, the painting over and finally the banner’s loss became fused as one event in folk memory and nobody actually remembered there had been two versions. But the history of that bold banner still remained and - like the fragments of the causes and leaders it espoused - fragments of it, stirrings of it remained. It gives me the greatest satisfaction after years of knock-backs to finally be able to have this banner unveiled again, to rise the heckles again, to strike up the controversies and debates again, to re-raise those vital arguments of ‘Where to?’ and ‘Which road?’
That enough Gateshead councillors were able to utilise their influence in the allocation of the much called-upon community fund to pay for this banner restoration, of all banner restorations, speaks volumes about their class-consciousness and regional roots - I say this despite my own bitter disagreements with their Labour Party membership and politics.
The brilliance of this banner is that almost uniquely it represents the three major political ideologies of the labour and working class movements: social democracy, syndicalism and Bolshevism. It poses tactics of the ballot box and the bullet, parliament and the general strike. That they are posed in composite suggests perhaps that they are not ‘either-or’ options. The reverse side of the Follonsby banner, which has remained constant through all four versions, is an illustration of socialist simplicity: health, leisure, education, decent housing, and a version of socialism which men like my dad thought they were on the way to achieving in 1945 through their Labour Party aspirations.
It also puts me in mind of Connolly’s famous quote: “For our demands most moderate are, we only want the earth” (1907). Fact is, working class socialists like my dad became bitterly disappointed with Labour, especially after Harold Wilson backed off from what could have been a more radical programme than 1945 in the 60s. Then he felt betrayal, as first Heath and then Thatcher tore up what he thought had been a ‘post-war consensus’ that would give workers a steadily improving social and political prospect. As mounted police rode through pit villages in 1984-85 and miners were clubbed down as they had been in 1926, he realised like many that the class war had never gone away - here it was raw and bitter once again.
Following 13 years of crude New Labour Thatcherism, and its current, more elegant Con-Dem variant, the moment couldn’t be more apt to bring this banner back to life, and pose the old questions once again: Where to? Which road?
A specially commissioned, 74-page history of the lodge and political trajectories of the miners and their leaders will be out in time for free distribution at the launch. George Harvey, pitman Bolshevik, and the Follonsby miners lodge banner will be available after the launch for £10, post paid, from firstname.lastname@example.org. Proceeds to the Follonsby Lodge, Durham Miners Gala band and bus fund.
Saturday June 18, 10.30am: Unveiling by mayor of Gateshead, Wardley Legion Club, Sunderland Road, Gateshead (nearest metro: Pelaw - walk up through Ellen Wilkinson estate). Followed by entertainment and buffet.
Organised by Follonsby Miners Lodge Banner Association.
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